Let’s Get to Know Johann Sebastian Bach and His Family

In this blog you will get to know Johann Sebastian Bach as the living, breathing musician, father, husband, and sometimes imperfect human being that he was.

You’ll also get to know his family:  Elisabeth and Ambrosius–the parents;  Maria Salome–the sister;  Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena–the wives;  Catharina Dorothea–the eldest child;  Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian–the surviving sons; and Sara Levy–a patron of the arts.

While doing the research and writing the story for our organ and media event, Bach and Sons, I found, as I know you will, the story of Bach and his family intriguing, engaging, and full of surprises.  Read on…

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The Bach Family in Eisenach

(Elisabeth Bach, mother of Johann Sebastian Bach, recounts his first 10 years.)

I want to tell you an amazing story: the story of my son, Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the story of a precocious talented little boy whose name was to become known throughout the world centuries later.

Birthplace of JS Bach – Eisenach, Germany

My precious boy was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany to my husband, Ambrosious and me, Elisabeth Bach. We are quite a family, we Bachs. The name Bach is nearly synonymous with the word musician around this part of the world.

The story goes that my husband’s great grandfather, Vitus, taught himself to play the lute to while away the time at his mill while corn was being ground for use in his bakery. Well, his love for his lute and music was so great that he taught his sons to not only bake bread, but more importantly, to also play wind instruments. His son Johannes got so good as a stadtpfeifer (city wind instrument player) that eventually he gave up baking and devoted himself to music-making.

Ambrosius Bach
Father of JS Bach

After that, right through the next generation and down to my husband, the Bachs have been and are musicians. In fact, my husband is very well known in Eisenach. You see he is not only a town musician but a court musician as well! He often plays his violin for our Duke and his guests at the castle. I am so proud of him!

Ambrosious and I have decided that our children must study music and follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. After all, there is no better way to make a living here in Germany than to make music. So, that is why we have made sure that all of our children are studying music.

Our youngest boy, Johann Sebastian, is already studying the violin and viola with Ambrosious. Ambrosious is planning to find a way to get our young son into the court orchestra as soon as possible. Our children are so talented. In fact, Johann Cristoph, our oldest, is now an organist and teacher in Ohrdruf where he has just married a wonderful girl.

(This story and the images are from the organ and multi-media and event, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.  Visit bachandsons.org to discover more.)

Who Was Anna Magdalena Wilcken?

(The early years in Cothen as described by Anna Magdalena Wilcken Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife.)

Johann Sebastian Bach and I were married at his home in Cothen on December 3, 1721. I now am not only Johann Sebastian’s wife but I am also the mother to his four wonderful children, Katharina Dorothea who is now 13, Wilhelm Friedemann who is quite a musician already at age 11, and the younger Carl Phillip Emmanuel and Gottfried Bernhard, ages 7 and 6.

JS Bach and his sons

I now have a new life as a wife and mother, and in that role I am helping Sebastian with the children’s music studies. I also plan to continue my singing from time to time as one of the Prince’s female singers here in the court in Cothen. Lately, I have also found myself helping Sebastian by copying the dozens of parts needed for the instrumentalists and singers for the many performances of his music here at the court.

It was a big decision for me, at age twenty, to marry this great man, but I know we will have a wonderful life together. Sebastian is committed to composing music for his children, his growing number of students and me. He just completed 24 prelude and fugues for us to play. He inscribed it with the words, “for the use and profit of young musicians anxious to learn as well as for the amusement of those already skilled in this art.”

(This story is one of a many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

Music for Anna Magdalena

(The later years in Cothen as described by Anna Magdalena Bach, JS Bach’s second wife.)

My husband and I have worked together collecting a group of pieces that I can use for my enjoyment, a Little Clavier Book for me, Anna Magdalena. We have included dances, some chorales, and of course some keyboard exercises. Johann Sebastian has also composed five French suites and other pieces for my little book. What a special gift this is. We are so happy.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen

Oh, and have you heard? The new princess here in Cothen does not seem to like music very much. It is a sad time for us as we thought we would make our home in Cothen for the rest of our lives working for a generous prince who loves and appreciates music. But now that Princess Friederica Henrietta is around the court, the Prince seems to have forgotten about his musicians and strives only to please her.

My Johann Sebastian is feeling unappreciated and ignored. This is not something he is used to here at Cothen. We have been talking about his desire to return to church music and our boys seem to be inclined to study so my husband wants them to attend a university–something my Johann Sebastian was never was able to do. It will be difficult to leave Prince Leopold, our great patron! But, I guess it is time for the great Johann Sebastian Bach to look for a new job.

(This is one of my vignettes included in the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, created and performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist, with David Jordan, media artist.)

JS Bach Unanimously Elected

(JS Bach elected as Cantor in Leipzig as told by Anna Magdalena Bach, JS Bach’s second wife.)

St. Thomas, Leipzig, Germany

It is June and we have just heard that the post of Cantor at St. Thomas’ in Leipzig is open. My Johann Sebastian will immediately apply for this prestigious post. An added joy to this month is that our first baby was born and we have named her Christiana Sophia Henrietta. Her brothers, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Phillip Emmanuel and Gottfried Bernhard and big sister, Catharina Dorothea, are delighted with the baby. Ah, but back to the Leipzig story.

Finally my husband has been asked to come to Leipzig to interview for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas. We have heard that the council is “sorry,” as they say, “that they can’t have the best, and that they will make do with what there is.” Ah, but my Johann Sebastian will show them what a composer and performer he is! Well, that is exactly what JS did! We were told that the entire council, all 32 members, unanimously elected my husband as the new Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig.

(One of many vignettes from the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, as performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

The Gossip Column of The National Scholars Magazine Includes the Bachs

(The arrival of the Johann Sebastian Bach family in Leipzig as told by Anna Magdalena, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife.)

A very famous magazine, the National Scholars’ Magazine of the Neutral Correspondent of Holstein, has written about our move to Leipzig. It is so good, I must quote exactly what they said about the Bach family’s move: “Last Saturday around noon, four coaches with household equipment arrived from Cothen. They belonged to the former royal court Kapellmeister who was called to Leipzig and appointed Cantor at St. Thomas’s. At two o’clock he and his family arrived in two coaches and moved into the newly renovated apartment at St. Thomas’s school.” So, we are in Leipzig now. All seven of us: Catharina Dorothea who is now 15, the three boys and the baby Christiana Sophia. Our apartment is large and beautiful and takes up three floors of a huge old building over a century old.

St. Thomas Choir, Leipzig, Germany

Johann Sebastian is trying to understand his new position. He has to report to so many different people. It really is very tricky because the Kantor, my Johann Sebastian, is basically the music director for all the churches in Leipzig. In his new position as Kantor he has to answer to: the rector of the St. Thomas School; the city council made up of three burgomeisters (mayors of the town); two deputy burgomeisters; and ten assessors. My heavens! How is he going to manage to keep everyone happy? Besides that he has to compose a lot of cantatas, teach at the school, and of course play for all the services, weddings and funerals. We will be a busy family helping him with all this work!

(This story is one of a dozen vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

JS Bach Trounces Harpsichordist

(JS Bach’s competition in Dresden as related by Anna Magdalena Bach, JS Bach’s second wife.)

The Dresden Court

My husband, Sebastian as I call him, is becoming a more and more famous, not only as an organist but also as a composer and harpsichordist as well. In fact, he just got back from Dresden where he was invited to compete in a competition with the most famous harpsichordist of France, Louis Marchand. And, what a story that is!

Johann Sebastian was thrilled with the invitation to compete against this famous Marchand because, after all, Marchand is the harpsichordist to King Louis XIV of France. Louis

Louis Marchand

Marchand also has several volumes of published compositions and we were told that he plays in a most elegant and refined style.

My husband eagerly went to Dresden a few days before the competition to prepare his competition music. I imagine Monsieur Marchand probably heard Johann practicing, because people are just drawn to JS when he plays!

As my husband told me, the appointed time arrived and a large company of persons of high rank and both sexes gathered for the competition. The Count who was sponsoring the competition was there as well as a large group of onlookers. After all this was a huge event in Dresden between two tremendous performers.

My husband was there and ready to play, but Marchand was not. Everyone waited and waited, including my husband who was to play first. Still the famous Frenchman, Louis Marchand did not arrive! After a very long wait, the guests were informed that Marchand had suddenly left Dresden by the early morning fast coach. My Bach won the competition by default!

Johann Sebastian Bach

I just know Monsieur Marchand heard my marvelous Johann Sebastian practicing and improvising and was scared! Really scared! Marchard realized he might play daily for King Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King,” but that he was no match for the great Johann Sebastian Bach, Organist and Kapellmeister of the Court of Saxe-Weimar! So instead of a competition, the Count and his guests heard a grand concert, performed by the best harpsichordist in the world, my Johann!

(This vignette is one of many in the Bach and Sons organ and media event created and presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

I’ll Have An Espresso With That Harpsichord

(The Leipzig years as related by Anna Magdalena, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife.)

Our family continues to grow quickly! In fact, since we moved to Leipzig ten years ago, I have had a baby every year. So, yes, our home is getting more and more crowded with our growing family. In addition, many friends and extended family members often stop by for a visit and sometimes even stay for weeks at a time to work with Johann Sebastian and to make music together.

St. Thomas School and the Bach family home

One of our older sons, Carl Phillip describes our home as a “dovecote” and I tend to

agree. There is always something going on but it is in general a harmonious and pleasant home. Why I even have several linnets (beautiful little songbirds with red breasts and foreheads) in our home. They make such a sweet accompaniment to the music of our home. The older children are such a help with all the babies and Johann works hard to provide enough for all of us.

Sadly, though, Johann Sebastian and the rector of St. Thomas School, one of my husband’s many bosses, is a difficult man and their relationship is acrimonious at best. Therefore, to avoid conflict, Sebastian has started spending more and more time at Zimmerman’s Coffee House, which is just down the street from our home.

Pleasantries in Leipzig

At Zimmerman’s, a wonderful group of musicians called the Collegium Musicum, regularly perform there. I think my husband will soon take over the direction of the group. He has already started composing wonderful music for them. He is so happy when he is working with this talented group of musicians.

Prince of Anhalt-Koethen

Johann Sebastian and I had a wonderful New Year’s celebration this year. We were invited to Cothen to play and sing for the New Year’s Day festivities at the Court. It was good to be away from Leipzig for a few days and have the opportunity to see our old friends and make music together. In addition, our dear friend, Prince Leopold, paid us both very well. It brought back so many memories of our grand times in Cothen.

(This vignette is one of many in the Bach and Sons organ and media event created and performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

Challenges for the Bach Family in Leipzig

(The Leipzig years as related by Anna Magdalena, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife.)

Back in Leipzig, my dear Johann Sebastian works very hard but is very often unappreciated. Unfortunately, my husband also has a rather short temper at times, which makes his work situation difficult. Then with the loss of five of the eight children we have had since moving to Leipzig, he is often weary and sad. The older children and I do what we can to help.

Finally, a new rector has been called and Sebastian really likes and respects this man! Matthias Gesner is our hero and he has come along just at the right time. He is the person who is going to step in and make everything right again.

Herr Gesner became rector of the St. Thomas School and did five important things: declared a truce between my husband and the council; made sure Johann Sebastian received the pay he was due; refurbished the school; relieved my husband of his teaching duties; and made music important again at St. Thomas. Gesner got things on track in Leipzig for us. What a wonderful difference this man has made in our lives.

(This vignette is one of many from the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, performed by David Jordan, media artist and Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist.)

Johann Sebastian Bach Takes His Final Breath

(The last years of Johann Sebastian Bach’s life as related by Catharina Dorothea, Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest daughter)

My father suffered from eye trouble for the last ten years of his life. By the beginning of 1749, he could no longer work to his full capacity. He was simply tired and broken from his constant eye trouble that at times rendered him nearly blind.

To make matters worse, the horrible and tactless authorities in the town council even allowed a candidate, a Herr Harrer, to take the examination for my father’s post of Kantor of St. Thomas a full year before my father’s death. The town chronicle also reported that the authorities were counting on the great Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. Still, my father continued when he was able with his compositions and correspondence with the help of his wife, Anna Magdalena and his new son-in-law and former pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol who married my sister Elisabeth Juliane Friederica. It was a difficult time for all of us.

Finally, my father’s eyesight and health declined dramatically. He struggled so and was so frustrated in not being able to see, that when we heard that a famous English eye specialist named John Taylor was visiting Leipzig, it was decided that our dear father would have the painful operation to restore his eyesight.

The excruciating eye surgery performed by Dr. Taylor in March seemed to help a bit, but then a month later, my father’s eyesight was nearly gone again. Therefore, Dr. Taylor performed this awful operation a second time.

Unfortunately, that operation turned out very badly and our father was then totally blind and greatly weakened by the ordeal and the harmful medications. We strove to make him comfortable, but he never gained his strength.

By July 22, with his children and his beloved Anna Magdelana at his side our father took his last communion at our home. He died only six days later on the evening of July 28 of a stroke. We buried him three days later at St. John’s cemetery.

From the pulpit of St. Thomas my father’s death was announced: “Peacefully and blissfully departed in God the Esteemed and Highly Respected Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, Court Composer to his Royal Majesty in Poland and Serene Electoral Highness in Saxony, as well as Capellmeister to the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen, and Cantor in St. Thomas’ School, at the Square of St. Thomas.”

The greatest of the Bachs had left this world for the peace of the next.

This story is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with David Jordan, visual artist.